Art by Seonna Hong
Anyone looking for signs of stability in the world might consider the questions asked of writers on book tours. Those that concern the process of writing number no more than 10, and they never seem to change: Where do you get your ideas? When do you do your writing? But as I entered the cavernous sound stage of a Los Angeles television studio recently, side by side with the gentleman who was to interview me, I decided to add a new one to my list of common queries. It’s a question reliably elicited by a certain genre of book. “The main thing I want to ask you is: Why you?” the man said. “Why this book?” He carried a legal pad with several pages of densely scribbled notes about my book’s content, but the issue that most preoccupied him — the one he reiterated as microphones were clipped to our lapels, and asked again in more circumlocutious terms on air — was that same nagging question: “Why you?”
There was no mystery what he meant. I am white, and the book I had just completed, American Beach: A Saga of Race, Wealth, and Memory, concerned black history. He didn’t mean the question in a hostile way, being well-intentioned, but others have. A white man writing on a black subject can excite the same reflexive suspicion as a black man driving a new Ferrari through Bel Air. But as black history is increasingly celebrated, as a greater number of journalists — black and white — cross the color line to report and comment, the question “Why you?” is more and more a pressing one.
Like any writer just off a book tour, I have a practiced answer, and it’s this: If you believe as I do that the contribution of black Americans to America is an essential one, then we are all living in a world and in a culture partially created by black Americans. And because that contribution has been hidden, the part of our own lives and identities about which we white Americans remain the most ignorant is the part of our lives called black history. Do most Americans, looking up at a traffic light, credit its black inventor? Do Angelenos considering the amending of their city’s charter stop to contemplate that the original founding of Los Angeles was dominated by black residents? No. And they should.
Yet an acquaintance with black history also refutes the adequacy of this pat answer, for one very simple reason. The violence inflicted on the black community was only partly physical. The other part, the greater part, has been cultural. By destroying ties to family, religion, custom and language, slavery severed an ancient cultural coherence; trying to reconstruct a usable culture has not been easy under the reign of prejudicial stereotypes, the distorting patronage of Step ’n’ Fetchit minstrelsy and blaxploitation entertainment. The black person in America has had to face not only the man thief, but the soul thief. And he has had to put up with the story thief, too, because much of the cultural violence was committed against the history and depiction of the black community. Today, as before, the black community is under assault from without, and much of its struggle to survive in the face of that assault has been the struggle to own its story, and to have that story told, as it too rarely is, from the inside, by insiders.
Properly so. But where does that leave the storyteller? When the storytellers are journalists, they are by nature outsiders, strangers. This is true whether they are black or white, whether they grew up in a community or just arrived, whether they are sympathetic or critical. At the moment the writer decides to write, he or she becomes the other, the subject’s observer, even if the subject is the writer’s own community, or family — even if it’s the writer’s own life. This is the essential mystery of writing: the partnership between a necessary affection and a necessary alienation.
This fact is not one calculated to make the author comfortable at home, whether you are William Shakespeare or Victor Hugo or William Faulkner. Or Richard Wright or James Baldwin or Claude McKay or Langston Hughes or Zora Neale Hurston. Black writers are saddled with a particularly heavy burden in this day and age in being their own “intimate strangers.” One thing to note about Shakespeare and Hugo and Faulkner: As subversive as they were of their cultures, they had the luxury of having empires to subvert. Within the admittedly artificial confines of “black community” or “black affairs,” black Americans have no secure empire — yet, at least — within which to create. Their community is under assault. And when a community is under assault, any writer who stands outside it, exercising that affectionate alienation, that cold observation and unsentimental recording, runs the risk of being mistaken for a traitor.
The plight of the black journalist is a model for the difficulty of building a culture in the face of white domination: He is in a no-win situation. If he writes about subjects other than race, he runs the risk of seeming, to blacks, a sellout, and he is given the old “Why you?” response from whites. But he may be in even more trouble if he does write about race (if he writes, that is, for the majority press). In that case, white editors and readers will tend to subtly dismiss him as a sort of genre writer unable to transcend his roots, and black readers and peers will hold him to severe account if his reporting in any way exposes the harder realities of black life to white inspection, putting the community’s business in the street, as it were. Black writers nationwide know the sting of that reaction.
The situation may be less dire for white journalists, but they are in no way off the hook. Even the most sympathetic white chronicler represents a cultural intrusion. John Howard Griffin may dye himself sepia to report on racial injustice in Black Like Me, but where is the justice in the underlying assumption that black experience isn’t real until a white man tells us about it? The white journalist must be especially careful he is not engaging in some sort of literary jungle fever, expropriating instead of exploring black experience and turning it to personal use. White writers are too often tempted to inflate themselves whichever way they go, by criticizing blacks (thereby elevating themselves in their own minds) or by championing blacks (thereby elevating themselves in their own minds). Either way, the elevation’s bogus. And the least little bit bogus, whether a black journalist’s race loyalty or a white journalist’s race envy, will destroy the truth of the story.
America desperately needs to hear true stories. Black history is more important to our country than we commonly admit. That history is usually promoted in two ways: as an overdue recognition of black contribution — of Garrett Morgan’s traffic light, for instance — and as a deeper recognition of black travail at the hands of white prejudice. Both are important and that’s a good start, but there’s something more. Black experience can offer America guidance through national quandaries that have nothing essentially to do with race. A country that is publicly debating every day the issue of money vs. morality can find no better leaders than the urban black entrepreneurs and executives who succeeded during Jim Crow. Because their race was harshly embattled, those men, more than anyone in 20th-century America, had to meld their capitalism with community uplift, and their profit making with public good. Similarly, a country trying to figure out how to maintain a vital, authentic culture in an era when that culture is dominated by the distorting influence of entertainment conglomerates can find no better leaders than the Harlem Renaissance writers, who had to figure out how to maintain an authentic black culture in an era when white sponsorship turned every expression into minstrelsy.
And a country whose every Enola Gay exhibit and impeachment trial reveals an intense war over the meaning and uses of history can learn many lessons from the current fight in the black community over its own history. Is history a propaganda tool to be employed in a community’s defense? Or is it an avenue of inspection that opens a community to the world? Answer that, and you’ll have the answer to the question posed to any journalist, black or white, who dares to cross the color line: “Why you? Why this book?”
Russ Rymer’s American Beach is available from HarperCollins. His first book, Genie: A Scientific Tragedy, was a National Book Critics’ Circle Award nominee.